The Boston Strangler: Why Did He Matter So Much, Historically?
Between June 14, 1962 and January 4, 1964, women in the Boston, Massachusetts area were on edge with reports that a serial killer was stalking the streets of the northeast and strangling women with their own hosiery. On January 4, 1964, the Boston Strangler's final victim, 19-year-old Mary Anne Sullivan, was found on the roof of her apartment building.
Even though the murders of 13 women were placed on the shoulders of Albert DeSalvo following a full confession, he's only been linked by DNA to one of the victims. The police simply had to take him at his word about the rest. DeSalvo was killed in federal prison before he could go to trial for his crimes, but his story remains a chilling portrait of desire turned to madness. Before the Son of Sam and Ted Bundy, the Boston Strangler was a killer unlike any seen before in America.
The Strangler's victims were all different
One of the major factors that lends credence to the belief that Albert DeSalvo wasn't the only Boston Strangler (more on that later) is the fact that the Strangler's victims were all so wildly different from each other. From 1962 to 1964, the 13 women placed beneath the Strangler's deadly umbrella were between the ages of 19 and 85, a range unusually wide for the targets of a single serial killer. To gain access to the homes of his victims, the Strangler often pretended to be a maintenance person, delivery man, or someone else on the scene to provide a specific service. Once he was inside their homes, the Strangler bound his victims with nylon stockings before raping and killing them. Their bodies were left lying nude on top of their beds, waiting to be discovered.
With no real leads, Boston began to panic
It didn't take long for word to spread about the heinous crimes. The murders were attributed to "The Mad Strangler of Boston," "The Phantom Fiend," and "The Phantom Strangler," but finally, in 1963, investigative reporters Jean Cole and Loretta McLaughlin christened him "The Boston Strangler" in their four-part series on the murders. Women frantically replaced the locks on their doors, and business was booming in the pepper spray industry. One woman told The Atlantic:
What do you do about the door when you enter? You look in the closets, under the bed, and in the bathroom. If a man is in there, you want to be able to run out, screaming for help. Therefore, you should leave the door open. But if you leave the door open while you are making a search, what is to prevent the Strangler from following you in and standing between you and your means of escape when you first see him? Do you enter the apartment, lock the door, and then start searching; or do you leave the door unlocked, or open, and make a hurried search?
Boston police brought in a psychic to help solve the case
Without any concrete leads, Massachusetts Attorney General Edward W. Brooke made a drastic move. He allowed Peter Hurkos, a parapsychologist who claimed to have ESP, to offer insight into the case. Hurkos, who'd previously worked on the Manson case, was given unprecedented access to case files. He pored over crime scene photos and every bit of evidence that was available to him before declaring that a single person was responsible for the crimes. Unfortunately, the suspect that Hurkos helped bring in was not only the wrong person, he was so psychologically unwell that he couldn't be tried anyway. Hurkos was removed from the case, and Brooke was lambasted in the press for his unorthodox decision. Luckily, the case was about to break in a big way.
Albert DeSalvo had a history of sexual assault before he was the Strangler
Source: Winter Watch
As the Strangler terrified the people of Boston, another criminal known as "Green Man" was doing his part to further creep out the city. This colorful character didn't keep his crimes local, either, spreading out to Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire. He wore a green work jumpsuit during his crime spree, which included the burglary of many homes and sexual assault of some 300 women. The Green Man's career came to an end in October 1964, when a victim living in Cambridge helped police create a sketch of her attacker, who authorities found disturbingly familiar.
It turns out the Boston Strangler was just one of many of Albert DeSalvo's violent personas. In addition to his alter ego of Green Man, Boston police also knew DeSalvo as "The Measuring Man," a creep who went door-to-door pretending to be a talent scout from the "Black and White Modeling Agency." Once he gained a woman's trust, he molested her while taking her measurements. DeSalvo served 18 months in prison for those crimes, but after he was released in 1962, he mysteriously dropped out of sight just as the Strangler began his operation.
DeSalvo admitted to being the Strangler after a separate arrest
After police released the sketch of Green Man, multiple other victims came forward. DeSalvo was subsequently charged with rape and locked up at the Bridgewater State Hospital, where he confessed to another inmate under observation at the hospital, convicted murderer George Nassar, that he was the Boston Strangler. After Nassar reported the confession to his attorney, F. Lee Bailey of O.J. Simpson fame, DeSalvo confessed to police, even providing details about the crimes that hadn't been revealed to the public to prove his identity. Even so, many detectives on the Boston police force felt that he was just telling them what they wanted to hear.
DeSalvo was sent to prison in 1967 for his actions as Green Man, so police figured there was no rush to put together a case against him for the Strangler's murders. Shortly after he was incarcerated, DeSalvo escaped with two other inmates, but he was quickly caught and transferred to a maximum-security prison. There would be no real justice for the Strangler's victims, as DeSalvo was stabbed to death in 1973. His killer or killers were never identified.
Many investigators believe that there were multiple Stranglers
There's always going to be an asterisk next to DeSalvo’s name when it comes to the crimes of the Boston Strangler. While he definitely committed at least one of the murders, there's nothing concrete to link him to the rest of the crimes and a number of strange anomalies in the case files. The perpetrator used a variety of modus operandi, and the victims were all from different age and ethnic groups. It's possible that multiple killers were active in Boston at the time, each using the basic method of the Strangler to obfuscate the evidence against them.
In 1968, Bridgewater State Hospital medical director Dr. Ames Robey voiced doubt that DeSalvo was the Strangler, insisting that he was simply "a very clever, very smooth compulsive confessor who desperately needs to be recognized." Some of DeSalvo's fellow prisoners claimed that he was often coached by another convict on the specifics of the Stranger's activities.
Mary Anne Sullivan's death was connected to DeSalvo
Fifty years after the Strangler's crime spree began, however, police finally got their hands on some solid evidence linking DeSalvo to that last victim in the form of DNA from DeSalvo's nephew. Testing confirmed that semen found on a blanket recovered from the scene of Sullivan's murder could only have come from a member of the nephew's family. District Attorney Daniel F. Conley of Suffolk County said:
For almost five decades, the only link between Albert DeSalvo and Mary Sullivan was his confession. That confession has been the subject of skepticism and controversy from almost the moment it was given. The evidence in this case never changed, but the scientific ability to use that evidence has surpassed every hope and expectation of investigators who were first assigned to the case.
While this breakthrough must have brought some peace to Sullivan's family, it still only links DeSalvo to a single Stranger victim. The cases of the 12 other murders attributed to the Boston Strangler remain open to this day.
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